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People and Steeples: Writing Church Histories

by Wendy Hobday Haugh

As our country ages, our houses of worship age as well. Churches in cities, towns and villages nation-wide are planning elaborate celebrations to mark centennials, sesquicentennials, and bicentennials. Many are eager to have their unique stories documented. Do you enjoy history? Are you fascinated to hear stories and reminiscences shared by older folks in your community? Are you eager, perhaps, to move from shorter works to longer, book-length projects? If so, writing a church history might be just the venue for you.

I hesitated when asked to document the last fifty years of my own church's history. I'd never been a history buff, and the thought of voluminous research and writing for a non-paying project was daunting. (Please don't stop reading! Church histories can be paying projects.) But a funny thing happened when I began seriously considering the project: I quickly became hooked. It was a book that should be written -- ideally, by someone with an understanding of church workings who could organize effectively and write efficiently. I was certainly familiar with my church, having been an active member for forty-six years. Ultimately, the combination of writing ability coupled with a spiritual affinity for my subject led me to accept the challenge.

Choose a Format

Fact/Reminiscence: I chose this arrangement in writing VOICES OF CALVARY: A History of Calvary Episcopal Church, Burnt Hills, New York 1949-1999. I began with sixteen factual chapters covering specific subjects: General Church History, Calvary's Ministers, Vestry Clerks, Music, Artists and Artisans, Women's Guilds, Altar Guild, Garden Guild, Women's Rights, Church School, Youth Group, Social Groups, Men's Group, Rectory, Parish Hall, and Church Fire of 1966. Following these chapters came "Voices of Calvary", a nostalgic section including personal essays provided by six cherished older members whose church involvement spanned a 65-year period.

Other effective book formats include:

  • Decade-by-Decade Coverage: Instead of dividing chapters by subject, as I did, an overview of successive ten-year periods is furnished.

  • The Pictorial: A visually detailed but far less writing-intensive format, the pictorial organizes photos either chronologically or by subject, providing captions of varying lengths depending on the depth of information appropriate to and available for each subject.

  • The Time-line: Another visually effective method (again, less writing-intensive although every bit as research-intensive), facts are organized chronologically along a time-line. The number of sequential time-line entries per page will depend upon the number of corresponding photographs available to highlight key moments.

Recruit Helpers

Writing a church history needn't be a solo endeavor. Solicit volunteer editorial assistants. Place a notice in the parish newsletter or hang strategically-placed posters requesting that anyone interested in sharing church memories, paraphernalia, scrapbooks, or photographs contact you. As people call, ask if they would be willing to write down their own special memories, sentiments or insights. You'll pick up some wonderful quotes for inclusion in various chapters. You might even acquire a gem of a polished piece in need only of minor editing.

Be prepared to be tactfully aggressive! If responses are slow or nonexistent, follow up with phone calls to key people in various church organizations. To elicit help for the youth group chapter, for example, I contacted a group member known to be interested in writing. Together, we struck a deal. As I researched, I promised to set aside all notes pertaining to the group, then pass them along to him. He, in turn, canvassed past and present youth group leaders to gain an overview of the group's colorful history. Once all info was in, the student organized and wrote the chapter, then passed it back to me for editing. Relieved to know I'd be checking his work, this young man not only summoned the courage to undertake the project but successfully earn his first byline.

Be an editor -- but let the writer's voice ring true. Since chapters written by others will bear the other writer's byline, strive to retain that person's unique tone. A youth won't write as an adult, but that's as it should be. Correct grammatical problems, restructure, if necessary, to achieve a better blend with surrounding chapters, but keep that original voice! Including the work of others helps to convey the spirit of a diverse and actively involved congregation.

Remember: Everyone isn't a born writer! Many wonderful storytellers feel totally inadequate when it comes to writing things down. To secure their tales, suggest that they:

  1. recount their stories with a tape recorder running, then pass the tape to you;
  2. allow you to interview them personally (again, with recorder running);
  3. provide you with rough notes from which you can fashion an article;
  4. allow you to do a telephone interview. The prospect of rehashing 50-years can seem daunting to subjects; phone conversations, in contrast, are manageable alternatives.

Now that you've lined up helpers, it's time to get down to business.

Research

Head to the church office and ask the secretary or minister to show you where all records and archives are kept. My own church had kept detailed minutes of vestry meetings since its incorporation in 1849. However, since the first century already had been encapsulated by a dedicated vestryman in 1949, my job entailed documenting only the last fifty years.

Dividing the minutes fifty-fifty with my mother (my right-hand assistant and fellow writer), I labeled sheets of paper with basic chapter headings (clergy, music, art/artisans, etc.), then recorded facts pertaining to specific subjects on the appropriate pages.

From the moment you begin reading, keep one important, sanity-preserving tip in mind: You can't cover everything! Paradoxically, if you try to include everything, you may end up with a dry, lifeless volume which leaves both you and your reader yawning. Be selective! In your writer's mind, always be on the lookout for facts and stories which propel your story forward and compel your readers to keep flipping those pages.

Another tip: Skim! I started out faithfully reading every word of every journal but soon recognized the need for speed. As you skim, important facts and trends jump right off the page. When they do, retrace your steps and read that section more carefully. Next to each note taken, be sure to record the dated source from which your info was gleaned. Later, if information is challenged, you can easily recall its origin.

Study as many sources as you can: bulletins, scrapbooks, newspaper clippings, files. Watch for poignant letters received by the church and filed away. Personal letters convey sentiment and insight into the impact of a church on individuals and the community at large. (If the writer is still living, request permission to publish the letter.) Keep an eye pealed for humorous, touching, or telling anecdotes. Nothing spices up a church history more than a well-placed aside.

Research isn't just a matter of reading. To make your history live and breath, talk to people! Church musicians, office personnel, Sunday school teachers, and long-time parishioners provide a wealth of invaluable information. Later, these same people make perfect proofreaders for specific chapters relevant to their areas of expertise.

Talk to all ministers and their spouses, past and present. Ask each minister to provide you with a personal biography, either fully written or in cursory resume form. Working from detailed sketches, you can readily assemble each minister's background, philosophy, and major contributions. If clergy have favorite stories or memories, ask that they share these as well.

Talk to children! What do they love about their church? A child's drawing, poetry, or prose lends priceless perspective to any book.

As I researched, I discovered a plethora of human interest stories liberally peppered among dry facts. These personal sketches brought to mind a confirmation class fact I'd learned thirty years earlier: A church is not a building -- it's a body of people. And with people, come stories ... vibrant, colorful, unpredictable stories ... the grist of non-fiction and fiction alike. When writing a church history, remember: you are writing about a body of people, not just a beautiful building. The church's physical construction merits a chapter, certainly; but the lives of those who faithfully worship within its walls year after year will provide the spark which, ultimately, brings your story to life.

Financial Considerations

In offering to write a church history, you are providing an invaluable service. Do not feel guilty about requesting reasonable compensation for your work. In deciding how much to charge, however, ask yourself these questions:

  • How prosperous is the congregation? Larger, financially stable churches may be better able to budget book costs than smaller parishes.

  • How eager is the church to see this project undertaken? (If you receive a lukewarm response, you might want to approach another congregation).

  • How eager you are, as writer/editor, to undertake this project?

  • How many years of history will you be expected to research and write up? The more years involved, the more hours you'll put into the project.

  • What is your personal time frame? From research to writing to printing, how long are you willing and able to be involved?

Whom to Query

Check out the founding dates of churches in your area. Which ones are approaching a milestone historical event? Contact these churches first. Send them a knock-out query. Explain the timeliness of a history book for their particular church and provide a clear picture of the services you are prepared to offer. Include clips of previously published pieces and a resume listing all relevant qualifications. Address your query to the minister or church board.

Before meeting to negotiate with interested personnel, check out the costs of local printing companies. Charges vary considerably depending upon book length, number of photographs to be included, quality of paper, and number of copies run. The larger the run, the cheaper the cost per book (which will directly impact selling price and, thus, sales of the finished product). Talk to printers beforehand about other ways to reduce cost. In determining your price, keep in mind that by providing print-ready copy with photo lay-outs (rather than just a typed manuscript), printing costs will be less -- but your own work intensifies.

Ultimately, the production end can seem even more overwhelming than writing and assembling the book; so think local! I learned this the hard way. My book required nineteen 40-mile trips to a non-local printing company.

Before entering into discussion with a client, carefully rethink book format possibilities. Be prepared to offer a choice of several formats (elaborate pamphlet, soft cover or hard-bound book) at varying prices. The thoroughness of your preliminary research will speak well of your ability to undertake a large, detailed project.

What to Charge

Some church history writers charge a flat fee of $20-25 per page, the lower end for straight manuscript pages, the upper end for camera-ready material. Others agree to payment on a royalty basis of 10-15% (although money may then trickle in over a longer period of time). Still other writers insist on an hourly wage.

As a volunteer, I worked a total of 250 hours on my church history -- and remember, I wasn't the only writer involved. Had I researched and written all chapters myself, my hours would have increased substantially. Hypothetically, working for just $10 an hour, I would have earned $2,500 -- in my parish, an amount far too high to be realistic. Had I charged $25 per finished page for the120 camera-ready pages which I provided, I would have earned $3000 -- again, way too high.

Know what your local market will bear, then decide a price accordingly. If a decent fee per page is acceptable to all, congratulations! But if an honorarium of $500-$1000 plus expenses (mileage, telephone, photography, and postage costs) is agreeable to you, go for it! You won't get rich, but you'll gain invaluable research and writing experience, meet dozens of priceless people, make useful printing contacts, and see a book -- which you have masterminded -- printed and marketed, all expenses paid. It's a heady combination for any writer.

Related Articles:

How to Tell -- and Sell -- Your Ancestor's Life Story, by Susie Yakowicz
http://www.writing-world.com/freelance/ancestor.shtml

Local History: A Lucrative Niche Market, by Patricia Fry
http://www.writing-world.com/freelance/localhistory.shtml

Making Your Future Out of the Past: How to Break into the Burgeoning History Market, by Sean McLachlan
http://www.writing-world.com/freelance/history.shtml

Portrait of a Relative, by Ruth Danner
http://www.writing-world.com/creative/relative.shtml

Writing for Family History Magazines, by Rosemary Bennett
http://www.writing-world.com/freelance/famhist.shtml

Copyright © 2000, 2007 by Wendy Hobday Haugh
This article originally appeared in The Writer's Journal

This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.


Wendy Hobday Haugh is a freelance writer from Burnt Hills, NY. Her articles and short stories have appeared in more than three dozen national and regional magazines, including GRIT, American Profile, Woman's World, Mature Years, Highlights for Children, Touch, I Love Cats, Cats & Kittens, Saratoga Living, Hudson Valley Life, and Hudson Valley Parent. In 1983 her book Sled Dogs, coauthored by Brigid Casey, was published by Dodd, Mead & Co., Inc.

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